Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Subway Snapshots


I was running late, and jammed myself onto a crowded blue line train at Belmont. I live far enough from downtown that I generally get a seat, but this morning I hung on to a pole near the doors, standing in front of an older gentleman in a summer-weight Kangol hat worn backwards, the kangaroo logo above his square, wire rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed mustache. He wore a short sleeved floral print button down shirt, and read the sports section of the Chicago Tribune with a three inch magnifying glass, the kind used by stamp collectors.


I got on the red line at Sheridan, and sat across from a sleeping man in sweatpants. He wore a baseball cap pulled down over his face, his arms were crossed, and his knees were splayed out as if submitting to a gynecological exam. Protruding from his inner thigh like a relief map of Sweden was the outline of his entire penis. I must have made a face, because the woman sitting next to me caught my eye and laughed raucously. When I got to my stop, I told her to have a good evening. “Be careful,” she said, and laughed as the sliding doors closed shut.


It snowed in Chicago on March 29th, and everyone was pissed off. People updated their facebook status with things like:

“Seriously? This is kinda bullshit.”;
“Don’t look outside”; and
“I may be anthropomorphizing, but that robin looked pissed off as he hopped through the snow.”

I got on the brown line at Irving Park, and sat across from a couple leaning against each other in amicable solidarity. I stared out the window watching rooftops fly past, when I heard a noise come from the couple, a muffled laugh. I wondered for a second if they were laughing at me, and then saw they were sharing an iPod, one ear bud each. A few seconds later it happened again. They rode this way, listening and giggling, to the end of the line.


After a rough day at work, Holly and I went to the Big Downtown, where they had four dollar martinis on Thursdays. I only wanted one, but a thick Canadian named Carl started talking to us, and bought us two more rounds. By the time we climbed the stairs to the brown line and sat in our seats we fell asleep, the movement of the train lulling us into unconsciousness like babies strapped into car seats. I woke just as the train pulled into our stop, bile rising in my stomach.

“Holly,” I said, “I think I have to throw up.” The next thing out of my mouth was three martinis, on the tracks.


On the A train in New York, which always makes the Duke Ellington tune get stuck in my head, I read the advertisements posted high on the walls. “Be cellulite free and hairless," one read. Another had a picture of a man holding a TV with George W. Bush’s face on it and the text “did you misunderestimate your closet space? Manhattan mini storage.” There were ads with phone numbers that spell things out: "877-BUNION-1", and "1-800-INNOCENT", and ads for Cohen’s Fashion Optical featuring models in outdated eyewear, which I'll always be partial to because my maiden name is Cohen. My concentration was broken by a woman in my peripheral vision wearing a faded pink scarf on her head, a grey skirt, knee high socks, and a pair of Crocs. She pulled a harmonica from her pocket and played “amazing grace”. She got off at the next stop, calling after someone who’d left her in their wake, and pulling a wheeled cart behind her.


I moved to Chicago at the tender age of twenty, and shared a garden apartment with a grad student I’d met by calling a handwritten number on an index card posted to the bulletin board of the Art Institute student center. It was the year of the “Great Chicago Flood”; new pilings being installed under the Kinzie street bridge caused an old transport tunnel to collapse, sending forty feet of water and fish into the basements of office buildings and museums, including the Art Institute. The image of water being sucked underground like tub water spiraling into a drain dominated the news, and enterprising hawkers sold t-shirts on the street with printed phrases like: “I survived the Great Chicago Flood.” I got on the brown line at Southport, and sat across from an elderly gentleman dressed in khakis and a windbreaker. We made eye contact and I smiled, thinking “I’m in the Midwest now, people are friendlier here”. He reached into his pocket for something - a piece of gum perhaps, or a hanky, his eyes fixed on me. It seemed to be taking a while for the man to find what he was looking for, and it dawned on me that he wasn’t reaching for a pack of Doublemint. Wide eyed, I stood up and walked backwards, like a cornered cat. I glared at him from the sliding doors until the train pulled into the next station, where I made my escape. He never took his eyes off of me, or his hand out of his pocket.


Coming home from Trader Joe’s, I caught the number 80 bus at Irving and Damen just before the light turned green. I clambered onto the bus with my groceries, and from the fare box spotted two empty seats together, facing forward: one for me, one for my groceries. I sidled through the aisle of the bus, plopped my bags down on the window seat, and settled into the adjoining one. As the bus began to move I felt the weight of someone’s stare and looked up, catching the eye of a seated woman facing the interior of the bus. She also had bags from Trader Joe’s. And she had my handbag, a hand made purse from Queen Bee Creations, a small business run by a woman named Rebecca Pearcy in Portland, Oregon. I thought it was significant that we had all the same stuff, and were on the same bus at the same time, so I spoke to her.

“Nice bag,” I said playfully.

“Uh-huh,” she replied, stony faced. I guess not everybody wants to talk to strangers on their way home from Trader Joe’s, so I let it go. I grabbed a book from my fabulous purse, and hid myself in it. As my destination approached, I realized that my doppelganger was standing at the front door. I exited out the back, not wanting to be detected. Then she started walking the same direction I needed to go. I hung back, leaving a wide enough berth that she might not be able to accuse me of stalking her. We looked like extras in a high school theatre production, the kids that have to spend just as much time in the theatre as the ones who get speaking roles, and have the entire script memorized, but only appear in two scenes. Our characters wouldn’t have even had real names; they’d be “Grocery Girl 1” and “Grocery Girl 2”. After about a block she took a cell phone out of her purse and started a conversation. I controlled the urge to do the same for a few seconds, and then took mine out and called my husband. Two blocks from my house, she crossed the street and headed west.


I had biked downtown, so I rode the elevator on Chicago Avenue into the red line and met Susan at the turnstile. I paid my fare, and rode a second elevator down to the subway platform while Susan took the stairs. Through the glass doors I saw a man on the platform standing close to the elevator bank. The doors opened, and I rolled my bike out. A moment later, Susan and I heard the sound of running water, and turned to see the man facing the wall; head down, feet spread apart, hands at his crotch.

“Is that really necessary?” Susan said, loud enough for the man to hear us. I tried not to laugh, but failed.


After a ten minute wait, I caught the number 36 Broadway bus at Argyle, a block west of the el stop with its red pagodas. I sat on a bench of seats facing the bus interior and two teenage girls sat across from me; one hunched over, hidden by the seat in front of her, the other turned away from her friend, facing the aisle. It took a while for me to register the sound coming from the girl in the corner. It was like soft rain hitting a windshield as you pull out from a garage. When they got up I saw a pool of brothy liquid with strands of pasta shimmering on the floor. A large man got on the bus, and sat where the girls had been. His sneakers slipped in the pasta, creating a high squeak. This happened several more times before he settled in.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Buttons and Keys

The button was slightly iridescent, with a raised flower that wasn't an edelweiss, but reminiscent of one, and reminded me of how tiny things can sometimes be beautiful. Every time I buy a new shirt or pair of pants at Ann Taylor (on sale of course), it comes with a small plastic baggie containing one or two extra buttons attached with a plastic "I", along with the price tag, which has been covered over at least once with a label showing a lower price. "Used to cost," is how I refer to the pre-sale cost of an item, and it brings me great joy to bring the item home, model it for my husband, and then tell him what a deal I got.

"Do you like this shirt?" I'll ask.

"Yeah, it's nice."

"Guess how much it cost?"

"I don't know."

"Used to cost..." I'll say, and then pause for effect, "forty nine dollars." "I paid..." and here I'll pause again, "Nineteen ninety nine."

"Wow." My husband will say, if he knows what's good for him.

The extra buttons, in their tiny plastic sleeves, generally end up in the bathroom cabinet. They end up there because I dress in the bathroon, it's just easier. I bring everything I'm going to wear into the bathroom, and then after I shower I don't have to go looking for anything. The clothes get de-tagged at this point, the tags get thrown in the trash, and the buttons go into the cabinet, never to be seen again. I've never taken the time to sort them out, or figure out how many I have, but they're in there.

As for keys, we have a number of hiding places. The most obvious is by the front door, in a small wooden box that we keep right under the mirror in the vestibule. There's probably fifteen keys in there, and I couldn't tell you what any of them open. There's a quart sized ziplock bag of keys in the kitchen that contains hundreds it seems, but probably more like fifty. Some of them are ancient, hulking, rusty things that must have once belonged to very old locks to very old houses. Some look like keys to bike locks lost or stolen long ago, and others are nondescript, and could have opened any number of houses or masterlocks over the course of their useful lives. Now they live in the kitchen, where they do nothing. Maybe at night they commune with the buttons in the bathroom, secretly making plans and cursing the day they ever entered this house.

There is so much detritus to our lives, ephemera that becomes part of our households, our handbags, our workspaces. If someone were to do a survey of all the loose buttons and keys on one city block, including those wedged into the dirt of backyards and in the small plots of soil that surround city trees, how many would be found?

I never bother to sew bottons back on anyway, they just become reminders of how my clothing used to be - before I started wearing it, before threads began to stretch and loosen, buttons began falling away, seams began to unstitch, and stains began appearing.

I've never been much of a seamstress, and I know I'll never get around to making repairs, yet I keep the buttons. There is so much in my house that I keep because I don't know what else to do with it - credit card offers that need to be shredded, holiday and birthday cards that I simply can't bring myself to throw away. It's a wonder I haven't been swallowed whole by the slow accumulation of objects in my home.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


My body is incongruous. My face, enormous, my forehead a vast billboard over my stick figure body. Brand new Adidas, glowing white with blue stripes, and three of the exact same pairs of jeans that my mother bought me at the beginning of the school year, now two inches too short. Hair an uncontrollable aura of frizz, pink plastic glasses framing my disbelieving eyes. My backpack was called The Haller, and I thought this was funny. Lionel Richie's "all night long" played incessantly on the radio, but nobody I knew actually owned a copy. There were eighteen blocks between my house and school, and most days I took the city bus. I had a bus pass that gave me half fare, and it got stolen once. Fortunately, it was at the end of the month, and I only had to pay with tokens for five days. On one of those days I met one of the popular girls at the bus stop, and when she realized she didn't have change to get on the bus, I gave her one of my tokens, which meant I 'd have to walk the eighteen blocks back home in the afternoon. Another time at the bus stop I suddenly became aware of the hair on my legs, something I'd never paid attention to before. I was wearing a skirt, and it showed. A girl at the bus stop stared at my legs, unflinchingly, the beginnings of a laugh on her face. I shaved for the first time that afternoon using my mother's razor and a bar of Ivory soap. I was crushed when Reagan won in a landslide, the whole map red except for Minnesota, not that I could have voted.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


I've always been something of an exhibitionist, it's true. We live on the first floor, and it drives my husband crazy. If I so much as walk through the living room in search of a lost coffee cup in anything less than full wardrobe, I'll hear about it.

"J," my husband will hiss, "everyone on the street can see you."

He's not wrong about that, and I should probably care, but I don't. It's always been that way, and in the years before we lived together, I was as naked as I wanted to be at home, damn the consequences.

M, on the other hand, has been fully dressed since he was five years old. His parents' nickname for him was "Mr. Modess".

"He went into the bathroom fully clothed," his mother explained, "and he came out of the bathroom fully clothed." He even sleeps in all his clothes, except maybe his pants, but even they get slept in sometimes. Once I woke in the middle of the night and realized he was sleeping with his hat on.

Maybe it was the lefty, Quaker summer camp that I went to when I was a kid, where swimming was "suits optional", but I think it's always been a part of me, so to speak. And the thing is, it's not like I have some kind of fantastic body image or gigantic ego that just screams for attention. Generally, at a new job, it takes twelve to eighteen months for me to relax enough to have a normal conversation with someone, or actively participate in meetings. So why the nudity? I can't say, I just enjoy it. Sometimes, sitting fully clothed on the couch or at the kitchen table, I'll grow envious of the cats, who never wear anything, and don't get into any kind of trouble for it. Sure, they've got fur, but that's a technicality.

Of course, I am hypocritical about nudity, I wouldn't want to accidentally see any of my neighbors in the nude in their homes, but I never said this was a logical proclivity. And it's not that I don't like clothes. I love clothes, I have more clothes than I know what to do with - most of them never get worn, and I like other people's clothes too. There's no accounting for nudity I guess. Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon had it easy, they got to pose nude, but were rendered virtually unrecognizable, avoiding any unnecessary embarrassment.